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Women in Business: Q&A With Jess Lee, CEO of Polyvore

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Jess is Polyvore's CEO. Prior to co-founding Polyvore, Jess was a product manager at Google, where she worked on Google Maps and launched features like My Maps and draggable driving directions. After four years at Google, Jess became hopelessly addicted to making Polyvore sets and decided the only cure was to join the Polyvore team to help build the company. Jess has a degree in computer science from Stanford University.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
When I was growing up, my mom ran her own small business out of our apartment. Because of that, it never occurred to me that women weren't commonly CEOs.

When I was in high school, I ran for student council and won. My win was surprising because I was an awkward nerd and our student council was mostly popular kids. The experience forced me to come out of my shell and lead at school events. It taught me that putting yourself in an uncomfortable position can be a good thing.

When I was in college, I studied abroad in Japan and learned to be self-sufficient in a foreign country. I recommend that all college students who have the opportunity try studying abroad! It's eye-opening and forces you to be independent.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Polyvore?
I was at Google from 2004-2008. Google has a great company culture specifically designed to attract smart people. Smart people want to be challenged with big, complex problems and be given autonomy to create interesting solutions. I've tried to replicate that aspect of Google's culture here at Polyvore, which has in turn attracted an amazing team of talented people.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Polyvore?
The highlight for me has been the evolution of the people at Polyvore, both our employees and our community. I've watched engineers grow from great coders into great product visionaries and team leads. I've seen teammates go on to start their own companies. I've seen the Polyvore community become highly influential, get invited to Fashion Week, open their own boutiques, and design their own lines. It's rewarding to see that growth and to have been a small part of it.

The biggest challenge for me is that this is my first time as an entrepreneur and a CEO. The CEO role is constantly evolving as the company evolves. Just when I finally get good at my job, it changes underneath me!

How is Polyvore transforming the world of social commerce?
Polyvore is unique in how we approach shopping. We empower a passionate community of tastemakers around the world to influence trends and drive shopping. We use technology to mine the data that our community generates in order to build what we call the taste graph. The taste graph is a mapping of people's taste in products and brands, as related to other people around the world. This allows us to create a personalized shopping experience that caters to your taste.

What advice can you offer women who want to create a social media site?
Don't give up. Startups require an irrational amount of faith.

Don't do it alone. Find a great co-founder. It takes a team.

Don't start a company until you have an idea you're truly passionate about. In the meantime, work at places that will teach you the skills you need to run a company.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
One of Polyvore's core values is to do a few things well. In other words, only work on the things that actually matter and do them exceptionally well. Be disciplined about saying no to things. Saying yes to everything is what leads to people becoming overcommitted, stretched thin, and pulling crazy hours to get it all done.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It's human nature to learn by observing and copying other people's behaviors. You learn from role models. In tech there aren't as many female role models, which in turn affects the number of women entering computer science, becoming engineers, or becoming leaders of tech companies. Would be great to see more role models.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I don't have any official mentors, but I've always tried to surround myself with talented people that I could learn from. My first boss Marissa Mayer taught me the importance of simple product design. My Google co-worker Bret Taylor (now CEO of Quip and formerly CTO of Facebook) taught me to win the respect of engineers by writing code. My co-founder Pasha taught me the importance of doing just a few things well.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I love seeing female leaders who are comfortable in their own skin. Someone once told me that the most confident people are the most humble ones, because arrogance stems from insecurity. I love seeing funny, authentic female leaders who are just as willing to talk about their successes as their failures, and who don't feel any need to put on a false show of bravado.

One female leader who fits this bill is Cheryl Dalrymple, Polyvore's CFO. Prior to Polyvore, she was the CFO of AdMob, Digital Chocolate, Nextance, Oblix and Lexis Nexis. She's had an amazing career, has been game-changing for Polyvore and has even climbed Mt. Everest, yet she's so down to earth about it. She's also hilarious and fun to work with. She taught me you can be a great leader without sacrificing your personality or your humility.

What are your hopes for the future of Polyvore?
I hope Polyvore can help democratize the way trendsetting happens across fashion, home, beauty and other lifestyle categories. I'd love to make it so anyone anywhere with great taste can be influential, even if they're not located in New York, Paris or Milan. I hope Polyvore becomes known as a great consumer brand and a starting point for lifestyle shopping. I hope Polyvore's amazing team goes on to create more amazing products and companies.